Febuary, febry

‘Last February? Last February? Oh yes, I was here last February.’ He [the janitor]  pronounced it exactly as spelled.’  (p. 236)

(Source: Pinterest)

The passage is from Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Little Sister (1949). When I came across this metalinguistic comment, I was wondering if anyone who isn’t focussed on issues of prescriptivism, would have spotted it.

February is a usage problem, and an old chestnut at that, for we find it already in Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, one of the earliest American usage guides (published in 1856). The anonymous author of Five Hundred Mistakes writes that “this word is often incorrectly spelled by omitting the r” (p. 21), but that is not why Chandler comments on it. His comment is about pronunciation, not spelling. Pronunciation of the word, according to the OED, is variable, both in British and American English: as many as seven variants are recorded in the dictionary.

For both varieties the OED lists pronunciations with and without /r/, but only for British English does it record a variable number of syllables. This is what Caroline Taggart, in her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), criticises  when she comments that february is “another word where people often swallow syllables” (p. 123), so pronouncing it as “febry”. Unacceptable in her view.

Thirty years earlier, Robert Burchfield had listed a recommendation for the correct pronunciation of the word in his BBC guide The Spoken Word (1981) as well: “(feb-roor-i) not (feb-you-)” (p. 13). Chandler’s comment, I think, is the same as Burchfield’s. He would have expected the janitor to say “feb-you-ari”, in line with the man’s assumed (though not clarified) social background.

This isn’t the only metalinguistic comment I came across in Chandler’s novels (though I’ve only read two so far). His biographer, Tom Williams, recounts an argument Chandler had with one of his editors over his use use of a split infinitive. This was in 1940 btw. “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it stays split …”, he is claimed to have said. “The emendations took time,” Williams drily commented.

Chandler didn’t write many novels, but I can’t wait the read the other ones.

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Guess what?! You don’t just speak a dialect; you’re also illiterate and uneducated!

And here is Ilse Stolte’s second blogpost, on a topic related to the first one she wrote about:

For the course on Non-Standard English and prescriptivism, I spend a great deal of time reading through entries of usage guides in the HUGE database. It is interesting to see that there are so many ways of writing a usage guide; there is so much variation in the language used. Some authors use very negative metalanguage; for instance, in her book Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), Caroline Taggart writes that the double negative “is the supreme example of duplication through lack of understanding” (p. 43) and double negatives “are among the clearest indicators of inelegance” (p. 43).

Other authors, even though they still prescribe and proscribe, use less negative metalanguage. They do not overtly condemn; they simply state the grammar rules. A few entries caught my attention. When I initially read them, they seemed positive, or just not overtly negative. However, reading them a bit more carefully, something struck me. I’ll give two examples from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000):

Its [them] use as a demonstrative pronoun, permissible in standard sources from the 15c. onwards, is now only dialectal or illiterate. (pp. 776-777)

… and also of swoll as a byform for the pa.t. until the 19c. before it became restricted to dialect or illiterate use. (p. 575)

Did you spot it? I am, of course, referring to “dialect(al) or illiterate”. This phrasing seems a strong condemnation of dialects. It sounds as if the two, dialect and illiteracy, are interchangeable, as if they are essentially the same thing. I was already aware of the stereotypes of certain dialects and have heard and read about the stereotypes connected to some. For instance, in a 2011 newsarticle, The Telegraph reported on a study which showed that people seem to regard Glaswegian and Brummie English more stupid compared to RP and other varieties of British English. I hadn’t seen, however, dialect in general being coupled with illiteracy and lack of education.

This made me more curious, so I decided to do a simple Google search and looked up “dialect uneducated”, at which I was surprised to see a great number of sites pop up.
One of these was this discussion about educated versus uneducated accents, which quickly changed into a discussion about dialect.

When Googling these two words together, you also get a lot of pages dealing with the question of why certain dialects are regarded as uneducated and what your accent or dialect says about you. The sites I found show how sensitive this subject can be and how worried we might be about it.

We all have certain attitudes towards certain dialects – be they conscious or subconscious – and we are not likely to get rid of these attitudes anytime soon. However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t try. To me, the two quotes from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000) just highlight this issue and, in my opinion, do not help in changing these, often negative, attitudes.


Burchfield, Robert (ed.). 2000. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taggart, Caroline. 2010. Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English. London: Pavillion Books.

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Hisself: should we allow it or not?

And here is another blogpost from one of my MA students. Maha Khalil would like to know why the non-standard reflexive pronoun hisself remains non-standard today. The blogpost was inspired … 

… by an article published by the Scottish writer and journalist Harry Ritchie in The Guardian in December 2013, called  “It is time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English”, in which he strongly rejects the prevalent notion that standard English forms are always deemed “correct”, whereas non-standard English forms seem to be wrong and ungrammatical.

This week, we are focussing in class on African American (Vernacular) English, and are studying the list of features included in Ax or Ask? The African American Guide to Better English, by Garrard McClendon. One of the features listed in the book is hisself,  which is condemned as “nonstandard for himself“. However, from Harry Ritchie’s perspective, there would be nothing wrong with hisself, the more so since standard English has my+self, her+self, our+selves. Consequently, hisself should be fully grammatical as it follows the same rule, and himself might be seen as the odd one out.

I also searched the HUGE database in order to see whether hisself is treated as a usage problem. It is, for I found out that the reflexive pronoun is dealt with in 12 usage guides, in 12 entries altogether. Most authors of the usage guides do not agree with the use of hisself for two main reasons: it is formed on the genitive case of the pronoun rather than the object case him (in spite of the fact that we have myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves), and it mostly characterises the language of uneducated and unsophisticated people.

I therefore decided to ask you as readers of this blog (native or non-native speakers of English alike) what you think of hisself: should it be considered acceptable, as Harry Ritchie seems to advocate, or should it indeed be condemned, as the usage guides in HUGE do, and should it therefore, as Garrard McClendon advises speakers of African American English, be avoided? Please leave your comments below : they will be of great use for my presentation on the subject next week. I will of course treat your comments entirely confidentially.

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Three more project publications!

Standardising EnglishJust out: Standardising English: Norms and Margins in the History of the English Language, ed. by Linda Pillière, Wilfred Andrieu, Valérie Kerfelec and Diana Lewis (2018), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Carmen Ebner, Concepts of correctness and acceptability in British English: Exploring attitudes of lay people, 213-233
  • Viktorija Kostadinova, Correcting English: Josephine Turck Baker (1873-1942) and the early American usage guide tradition, 171-190
  • Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, The grammatical margins of class, 193-212

Congratulations, editors, and special thanks for organising the wonderful conference that inspired these papers, Linda!

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Dialect or simply illiterate?

Ilse Stolte needs to write blogposts for my course Non-Standard English (and prescriptivism) as well. Here is the first one, and one with a request to our readers to fill in a survey on the acceptability of two stigmatised language feautures.

As a lover of British literature, TV, and film, I have read and seen my share of Cockney stereotypes. Sometimes, the story does not even have to be set in or near London for characters to be given the well-known Cockney features. If a character is supposed to be working class and/or uneducated, they swallow their Hs, replace their Ts with glottal stops, and, of course, “don’t need no education”, as Pink Floyd would say.

Especially the last feature – multiple negation – seems to be highly stigmatised and is seen as “a stock example of uneducated speech” (Howard, 1993: 133-134). I actually find this quite surprising, since throughout the history of English, double negation has been used extensively and it never seemed to be a problem. Double negatives can be found in the works of authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. More importantly, it is generally assumed to be one of the most common features in British dialects (Cheshire et al. 1993: 75).

For all this, most authors of usage guides do not go easy on them. Simon Heffer (2010), for instance, calls them “offences against logic” and “the product of illiteracy and stupidity” (201: 57). Even the ones that do not fully forbid the use of double negatives, Robert Baker (1770), for instance, says that not and no can be used with neither and nor “not with an ill grace” (1770: 112-113). However, in the same section, he calls the use of these words together “wrong” and essentially not “the correct Way of speaking”.

So this is why I decided to bring in another common feature, namely demonstrative them. Looking at the usage guides in the HUGE database, there are far fewer entries for demonstrative them than there are for multiple negation: only five compared to 33. The language used is also less harsh and negative. For example, in the Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1999), demonstrative them is simply labelled “non-standard or dialectal” (1999: 570). However, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000), this feature is described as “dialectal or illiterate” (2000: 226-227), which reflects a rather strong condemnation.

The differences between the number of entries and the language used in two entries made me wonder about the status of both features in the eyes of native speakers of British English, so I decided to have a survey to find out, though I am also curious to hear the opinions of speakers of other varieties of English. So I would be really grateful if you could help me find out by filling in the survey, which you’ll find here. Many thanks for your time!


Baker, Robert. 1770. Reflections on the English Language. London: John Bell.

Chesire, Jenny; Edwards, Viv & Whittle, Pamela. 1993. Non-Standard English and             dialect levelling. In Real English: The Grammar of English Dialects in the British Isles, edited by James Milroy & Lesley Milroy. Harlow: Longman Group Uk. 53-96.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 1999. Pocket Fowler’s Modern             English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 2000. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heffer, Simon. 2010. Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why it             Matters. London: Random House.

Howard, Godfrey. 1993. The Good English Guide. London: Macmillan.

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How do the Dutch feel about non-standard features of English?

Here is Michèle Huisman’s first blogpost, and she too is doing a survey for her paper in the course Non-standard English which I’m teaching. So please help her collect data for her upcoming presentation!

In 2017, The Netherlands came first in the English Profiency Index, followed by two Scandinavian countries (Denmark and Norway)  and Singapore. The Index suggests that Dutch people are considered to be highly proficient speakers of English. One of the explanations for this high could be the use of subtitles for English films and television series rather than dubbing the dialogues, as is done in many other countries. As the Reddit map shows, movies and series are only dubbed for children here, whereas in countries such as Germany and France everything is dubbed.

But the Dutch also come in contact with English as a result of globalisation. As mentioned in Allison Edwards’ book English in the Netherlands (2016): “[It is] the forces of globalisation that have seen English spread ever further and become entrenched in yet more societies, including those where it has traditionally been considered a foreign (as opposed to a second) language. Thanks to new communication technologies and global digital media, English has left almost no stone unturned on the world map” (2016: 1).

A lot of research has been done on the position of the English language in The Netherlands, because it is clear that this position is shifting from being a foreign language to becoming the second language in the Low Countries. As Gerritsen et al. mention in their article on the current status of English in The Netherlands: it “is not only a foreign language or international language, but also serves functions’ in various social, cultural, commercial, and educational settings” (2016: 458). It is true that English is taught in school settings in this country, but also due to globalization virtually everyone encounters English on a daily basis  through the social media, American movies and series, YouTube, commercial breaks and streaming services such as Netflix.

All this has made me wonder whether people in the Low Countries are aware of the existence of a distinction between Standard English and non-standard varities of English in terms of language use. What are their attitudes towards English usage problems, such as whether or not it is ok to use a split infinitive, whether they should prefer it is I over me (or not!) and whether a form like between you and I is acceptable? Do the Dutch even care about such distinctions?

To find out, I set up a survey, which I hope you will fill in so that I will have data on this question to report on for my course presentation in a few weeks’ time. I would be very grateful if you could help me with my research!


Edwards, Alison. 2016. English in the Netherlands. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Gerritsen, M., Frank van Meurs, Brigitte Planken and Hubert Korzilius. 2016. A Reconsideration of the Status of English in the Netherlands within the Kachruvian hree Circles Model. World Englishes 35, 2. 457–474.

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A centenary: The Elements of Style

Putting the final touches (I hope!) to my book on usage guides and usage problems,  I suddenly realised that William Strunk‘s famous Elements of Style is a hundred years old this year. Will anyone, publisher or critic or otherwise, pay attention to this fact? Do let us know!

I own a few copies of Strunk and White, the revised version of the book published 41 years later, but looking for an image to go with this blogpost and also because I was curious to see what the very first edition looked like, I came across a website of someone who has been collecting different copies of The Elements of Style – my man entirely! Great display, and very interesting description of the collection. I’m very much impressed and wish …

But the last blogpost on this site dates from May 2009, so I guess we’ll never know if the writer ever did obtain a copy of the book’s very first edition (his earliest copy is of the 1919 edition). Does anyone have any further information, also about whether anything is planned to commemorate this interesting centenary?

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